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MLS labor talks continue as deadline looms


With less than a week to go before the current MLS Collective Bargaining Agreement expires, Major League Soccer still has no deal in place for a new CBA and there is no reason to believe a deal will be done before Jan. 31, when the current CBA runs out.

Soccer America reported this morning on long negotiations taking place on Tuesday, with more talks set for Wednesday. Sources have told SBI that no deal is in place and a deal is still far from being completed.

Seattle Sounders star Freddie Ljungberg caused a stir when he mentioned on his blog that he had been assured that there would be no lockout or strike on the Feb. 1 date when the current CBA expires.

Based on the latest news I’ve heard from both sides,  there wont be a lock out or strike on Feb 1.

That statement left many believing a deal was on its way, but that isn't the case. All it could mean, and likely does mean, is that MLS does not intend to lock out MLS players immediately after the current CBA expires, which had been expected.

That is a far cry from a labor deal being done, but it could be seen as evidence that the Feb. 1 date will not mark the actual date when things turn ugly. If so, that would be a bit of progress considering MLS had previously threatened the player's union with a lockout if the CBA were allowed to expire with no new deal in place (threats that took place early in the negotiations, according to sources).

So what happens when the CBA expires on Jan. 31? If MLS doesn't follow through with a lockout, the league will continue to operate under the old CBA, which is something neither side is interested in having happen.

Will a deal be made? MLS can't afford to not get a deal done, and I'm not convinced all league owners are ready to let a lockout/strike happen, let alone drag on, but any suggestions or hints that a deal is already done or close to done are misleading. MLS is still holding firm on many major issues while the Players Union appears ready to fight hard for changes, at least fight much harder than it did in the last CBA, when MLS trampled a weak union and walked away with every concession and a league-friendly CBA.

There is still much to be done and the real battle will be taking place in the coming days.


  1. If you loose your job becuase of performance you don’t get paid either, thats what unemployment is for, its not the leagues job. If you can’t cut it you can’t cut it. and to say the players can’t move is a lie, mulrooney didn’t want to be in toronto they made a move for him,clint mathis didn’t want to be in salt lake they made a move for him, I side with the owners, if things go bad the players just leave and the fans and the owners are stuck. Unions are bad for business, just ask those UAW workers.

  2. I think both sides realize how bad a lockout would be right now with the World Cup around the country. There won’t be a lockout until next year (if they haven’t reached an agreement).

  3. i agree that it is a good idea, but the team that drafts the player should then have the option of matching the offer or letting the player go.

  4. I agree with sammy, this isn’t a case of the union asking for big bucks on the backs of the fans. It’s them asking for some pretty basic rights that players enjoy elsewhere.

    In the end, this league has expanded a lot and that’s putting pressure on the level of play. MLS can’t continue to sell crap and call it icecream forever.

    I have yet to see any details about what the owners are offering. From the sounds of things it’s next to nothing. Which is not the “slow growth” policy they claim they are following. It’s basically just more of the same.

    It’s kind of like if you have a business with 100 potential customers and you serve 50 and next year 51, and next year 52.

    Well good luck on the 100th guy still being there by the time you get your act together. He’s either going to be taken by someone else or moved on. MLS shouldn’t take forgranted people actually acknowledge it’s existance these days.

    Despite the “major” tag line in the name clearly there are some owners who don’t think that way.

  5. “An expansion in the salary cap isn’t really in the Union’s interest, it’s in the fans and the owners.”

    And you see this win for the fans as something bad? Who is going to watch our interest then? Obviously not the union from what you are saying.

  6. Haig –

    On the flip side, most SUM value is unrelated to MLS, such as Mexican national team exhibitions and international friendlies. Those are unaffected by MLS and should not be reachable by players.

    I would grant you MLS tv rights should be allocable to the P&L for the teams, though I think you are wrong that this is currently in SUM. Not all of the MLS owners are in SUM and vice-versa – those assets are highly correlated but have been split up in some cases.

    At any rate, MLS tv rights are a pittance at the moment. This is the first contract MLS hasn’t had to pay to have its games televised.

    I do not believe there is any empirical evidence that MLS teams are profitable, yet. They have a high potential long-term value, which justifies expansion fees, but you could not get anywhere near those dollars based on current cash flow and income, which is what the players should be paid from.

  7. David, I totally agree with your comments except for “I realize most MLS teams operate at a loss.”

    I really don’t think this is true, in the big picture. By segmenting parts of their businesses, MLS owners can dump liabilities on the MLS line, and spread revenues among different organizations. MLS owners make a ton of money off SUM, of which MLS TV rights are a part, but those aren’t revenues associated fully with the MLS teams themselves. Same for non-MLS events at MLS stadiums. Yes, there are a few ownership groups who lose money, but the league and teams in general are fudging the numbers.

    I would bet that of your four issues, the real sticking point is “negotiate directly with teams.” Everything MLS has done is designed to get around any sort of wage competition. I do not see them budging on that point, though I would love to see it happen.

    I’m sure the league wants the flexibility of being able to break a contract during the season, but that’s not do-or-die for the league.

    The other two points are easier to negotiate, but the league is probably making an issue of it so they can have more leverage.

  8. I don’t really see a problem with removing many of the rules as long as the hard cap remains.

    I know the free agent rights stuff is to prevent bidding wars and ensure compensation discourages teams from raiding other team’s rosters. But the cap will always prevent bidding wars. The cap will always provide competitive balance. All these nit-picky rules MLS has can be lifted and competitive balance would remain in place.

  9. I understand that the main issues are:

    1. A modest baseline salary (union wants ~$60-70, MLS pushing for $30-40)

    2. Ability for players to negotiate directly with other teams if a team that holds their rights decides they don’t want them. As it now stands, if a team doesn’t pick up a player’s option that it holds, that team still must be consulted and can even demand a fee in order for the player to sign with someone else – that is absolutly apalling.

    3. a 401(k) plan

    4. Players want to remove the ability of MLS to cancel a player’s contract mid-way through the season. In other words, player’s want a contract that is guaranteed for the entire season.

    I realize most MLS teams operate at a loss, but I doubt they would have difficulty raising additional funds through the capital markets. It just seems ridiculous to me that MLS is holding up on the above, all of which strike me a supremely reasonable demands.

  10. Agreed, but the players deserve something! If I’m the owners I offer allowing players to negotiate freely after a deal is up along with increases in minimum, salary cap and per diem and see if it gets me a deal.

    Then union wants guaranteed contracts, which I just don’t think is doable right now. The problem is that players get cut and have absolutely no income, putting them in a terrible situation. I could see a couple-month grace period, where a player gets paid for awhile allowing them time to find another source of income.

  11. We don’t know how much money the MLS teams are/aren’t making because they won’t open the books. I don’t trust the “we’re not making money” cry until I see the financials. Also, there wouldn’t be so many owners trying to get into a money-losing franchise. I call BS on the “making no money” thing.

    An expansion in the salary cap isn’t really in the Union’s interest, it’s in the fans and the owners. If the cap’s doubled, the players aren’t going to get more money, they’re going to get replaced by new players.

  12. Amen. Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither was the MLB or the major salaries that other sports players get.

    Small steps boys… get what you can but don’t throw away the recent progress for pie in the sky dreams.

  13. 2. A Developmental Waiver Process. If a team drafts a player and only offers them a “developmental” contract, there should be some sort of waiver process. Other teams should be able to sign the player if they are willing to give him a 1 year guaranteed “Full” contract.

    This is a good idea and fair to both sides.

  14. Yes, giving guaranteed contracts to players selected in the collegiate draft is obviously of utmost importance. What could go wrong? That will work really well with the hard salary cap. Wait until a team has to play dead-weight players because they are maxed under the cap. That will be great for increasing league popularity.

    Nevermind that other leagues have contracts that are not fully guaranteed – they are just guaranteed longer. e.g. Scandinavian.

    Nevermind that other leagues, such as Mexico’s don’t have free player movement internally.

    Too much, too soon from the union here.

  15. Players would prefer to change everything. Owners would prefer to change nothing. There is zero reason this should get worked out prior to the deadline unless one side prematurely caved in. The negotiations really didn’t start until this week.

  16. Two things I think the league should give in on:

    1. Free agency after a player plays out his contract. With the salary cap in place and most young guys signing 4 year deals, this doesnt seem too risky for owners. Its a way to allow players that have proved themselves in the league to get compensated, while the salary cap will still keep escalation under control.

    2. A Developmental Waiver Process. If a team drafts a player and only offers them a “developmental” contract, there should be some sort of waiver process. Other teams should be able to sign the player if they are willing to give him a 1 year guaranteed “Full” contract.

    I think there is definitely a place for developmental contracts in the league for young guys who wouldnt have many options abroad, and are trying to prove they can play in the MLS. However, if one of these players is talented enough for another team to be willing to keep them on the full roster, then the player should not be forced to accept $12K or nothing, just because they got drafted by the wrong team.

  17. you know, Ives I caught you on some toronto soccer podcast and you were excellent. WOuld it be possible for you to let us know when you’re on different mediums? Truth be told, you’re a lot more forthcoming with information on that podcast than you have been in your blog. It’s a different medium that makes it easier to toss out small tidbits of information, while also giving personal opinions that a lot of us on here like to hear.

  18. Contract extensions during labor negotiations are par for the course. I suspect that the real deadline isn’t until sometime in March.

  19. I laughed at that too. The NFL gives signing bonuses for high draft picks and stars signing a new contract. Everyone else signs a contract that is valid only if they are on the roster.

    Bad guaranteed contracts can devastate small market teams in the NBA and MLB.

  20. A salary cap is the best way to ensure competitive balance. Denying the players free agency within the league after their contracts expire is not necessary to protect competitive balance. if team can decide what to pay foreign players, surely they can be “trusted” to decide what to pay players from within the league.
    The same sort of argument can be made in favor of guaranteed contracts.
    MLS management has, to this point, had everything its own way and enjoys the fact that it exercises almost total control over the players. Conceding some power will be painful, psychologically, for management, but it won’t hurt their pocketbooks.

  21. Ugh, the only professional sport league in the world without guaranteed contracts. MLS deserves to give the players union what they want. MLS is driving a hard bargain. I’m started to get fed up with them.

  22. Mostly, the players want guaranteed contracts. Right now, the league doesn’t guarantee (most) contracts, until, I believe, July 1. And, they want freedom of movement. Right now, the teams retain rights to players even after the contracts expire — that continues indefinitely, unless the player signs overseas. If the team gets a transfer fee, those rights are cut-off — otherwise, they continue in perpetuity.

    Even if a team does lose rights to a player (either two years pass after drafting and failing to sign a player, or the team allows the player to leave without making serious offer or the team receives a transfer fee), the player cannot negotiate with any team and cannot play one against the other. MLS typically negotiates those new deals, and then the player is taken by a team pursuant to the allocation list.

    Given how few players are covered by the allocation rules, and the fact that those players are outside the union when they play abroad, the union probably won’t fight hard on the allocation system, but they will want some measure of free agency for players in MLS, and they will want the league to guarantee contracts it signs with players, at least beginning with the first games, not midseason.

    Those are pretty existential issues for the league. Without freedom of movement, players will never have any individual leverage. The owners don’t want to surrender on these points because they hold pretty much all the levers of control in negotiations with the players, both collectively and individually. Once players can choose which team to negotiate with, teams lose their absolute control over salaries.

    The owners will argue that free agency will destroy the economic position of a league that is still struggling to secure its place on the sports landscape — and it could upset the competitive balance the league maintains with the hard, very low salary cap, and rules that limit a team’s ability to sign any player they might want. They will argue that the competitive balance is needed to keep the interest of fans in smaller markets. Of course, the owners are probably correct, but think about it from the players’ perspectives: They put their bodies on the line, and the league won’t even guarantee the contracts they sign until and unless the player is healthy and performing into July; and the players can’t even choose to negotiate with the team they’d most like to play for. The allocation rule probably makes it much less likely that US internationals return home, but it does give the league some serious leverage in negotiating with them.

    I disagree with Ives’ contention that eh league would not want to continue under the terms of the current CBA. So long as players promise not to strike, the owners would be pretty pleased with that. The only thing that might trouble them is the prospect of an impasse being declared. This would bring in a neutral party — federal authority — to move the talks along. The owners would prefer the players capitulate and sign on to a new deal, but they’ll be OK with continuing under the current CBA.

  23. sciroccer – before the union rep went silent, he said they had been offered a raise but money wasn’t their main concern. The union wants the league radically restructured.

    I think most third parties agree the players are due for at least a modest raise (both salary minimums and overall salary cap). Really, the owners are incentivized to do so as well for competitive reasons recruiting players internationally. Several media sources have speculated this would have occurred last year but for the collective bargaining negotiations coming up this year. That is very likely already on the table from the owners.

  24. i said it from day one and i’ll say it again:

    neither side can afford a lockout and as ives pointed out neither side wants to stick with the current CBA.

    a deal will be made and MLS 2010 season will go on as planned.

  25. Given that it is a minor miracle we have a league at all, and the players have many, many options internationally if they are not happy with the terms of contracts in MLS, the players’ list of demands borders on the absurd.

    Take a decent pay raise, minor expansion of rosters, and STFU. MLS teams aren’t making any money as it is.

    One thing has been proven – unions aren’t good at balancing long-term interests, mainly because immediate results must be demonstrated to justify union fees. See: steel industry circa 1980, auto industry circa 1995. The owners are right to hold the line at this time.

  26. It’s a tough call? I’m player side leaning. I am for players getting better salaries ( which they could’ve used the money they spent on Donovan to spread aroun d) and a few other requests they have, but I can also see some concerns of the league. The country is messed up finnancialy and I would hate to see the league send itself into bankruptcy. As long as my season ticket prices don’t skyrocket, I just really want this crap done! I want to see my team ready, and playing on opening day!

  27. From my understanding, there doesn’t HAVE to be a CBA in place to continue on. Eventually the players would probably strike ( or owners would lock out ) if there isn’t one, but right now a lock out or strike helps no one.

  28. With the possible strike around the corner, the ones with the most to lose are the players. Owners have the money and if the MLS goes belly-up due to this, the owners will take a financial hit, but then it will be considered a tax right-off for them.

    Players need to discuss which “mountain” they would “die” on, because that is exactly what could happen… MLS could die if a strike goes through… with the euro leagues availability on tv 24/7 how many would really miss the MLS?? Sure, fans go to the games, but many would simply start following other teams.

    Just a thought….

  29. What exactly are the top issues that each side is fighting for? I realize the players want a higher minimum, higher salary cap, better retirement plan, guaranteed contracts, more/any flexibility in free agency, and even more; but is there any real priority or sticking point among them or are they just playing hard ball?

  30. As long as talks haven’t broken down before 1/31, there could be temporary extentions of the current CBA while talks continue, certainly that common in most labor negotiations. Danger is, if negotiations drag on into the season, then collapse, leading to a strike or lockdown in the midst of the fixtures. Deadly.

  31. My daddy was a a footballer and I’m a footballer’s son
    And I’ll stick with the union till every battle’s won

    Tell me which side are you on boys?
    Which side are you on?..

  32. Ives, can you dedicate a post to explaining the main issues that are being discussed in the MLS labor talks? Also, are you willing to take a stand on what provisions you agree with and which you think are unnecessary at this time?


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